I didn’t say anything. She was part of the young writer’s jury, and her role was to critique, encourage, and give advice. My role was to merely listen in gratitude. But I was fuming inside. She had breezed over my story. She had skimmmmed over my story.
Because I didn’t point out her error, it’s been a haunting memory for me. When I started editing in my late 20s, I recalled this situation while trying to read through a particularly long article.
University had clearly turned me into a skimmer. I had to retrain myself to step gingerly through words in order to land squarely on meaning—or so I thought. Yet this was challenging when the meaning did not present itself clearly. Either my skimming reaction, or my let’s-do-this-later reaction, kicked in.
I thought of that juror. I thought of people who have a lot on their minds, busy lives, better things to be doing. I thought about our instant gratification lifestyles. Our drive-thru take-outs. Our remote controls. Our tall lace-up boots with zippers on the sides.
You get it. We’re all looking for a bit of a shortcut. (Says I who has her keyboard programmed with hundreds of useful shortcuts for my editing work.)
So, what’s my point? Readers need and want the meaning of a sentence to cut through all the other business going on their head like a hot knife slices through butter. The words need to instantly translate into meaningful, relatable information. That’s why most information you read on the Internet is written at a Grade 9 level.
As a writer, you risk losing your reader at the first sentence that doesn’t convey it’s meaning in an easy, clear manner. When a reader needs to reread your sentence, you’ve lost a slice of your credibility. If your business and livelihood rests upon your information getting out into the world, this may be even more important to you.
It’s absolutely worth it to (a) put your writing away for a few months and then re-evaluate it, (b) have a friend read over it and mark things that are a bit unclear, or (c) hire someone who has a lot of experience excavating meaning. To be clear, other than practice, these are the most noteworthy shortcuts to meaningful writing.
But this desire to get to the destination without the hard work isn’t necessarily a modern affliction—it’s a human trait. When she was a teenager, my grandma had similar sentiments, which were made clear in a poem she wrote called “Knowledge” in the late 1940s. It’s about a young woman who has to study for a test, but her mind keeps zooming back to a romantic dance she had the night before.
Based on a story she had heard, the young woman in her poem decides to “eat the words upon the pages”—literally. She crumples her notes and stuffs the “hardly palpable” wad into her mouth and eventually swallows, in hopes that she would have instant knowledge. The fulcrum of the poem reads, “The silly story was all a fable! / Information gone—how can I study?”
When it comes to getting good information, however, sometimes a shortcut is not an option. Sure, a person can write a life story in five stanzas or less, but who would want to? And an academic paper certainly couldn’t be whittled down to only the abstract, as much as many scholars might like to. That’s simply not the nature of academia.
The Meaning Excavator
Meet the Editor
I'm Coreen, and I am a copy editor, writer, instructor, digital marketer, and student of PR and Communications for organizations doing positive work in the world.